It does seem as if the much-awaited Cabinet reshuffle may finally happen, especially after the Prime Minister reshuffled the governors and sent Thawarchand Gehlot onto a gubernatorial posting. Gehlot was Cabinet Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment before this and the SC face of the government. But more importantly, the fact that he was transferred out of the Union Cabinet is what confirmed the rumours that the reshuffle was now a certainty.
If nothing else then the reshuffle buzz has fired up the political class as various names are doing the rounds. Topping the list of the obvious is course Jyotiaditya Scindia, but will he be given a hefty portfolio is a question. Since one of the criticisms of the Modi government is that it lacks bench strength the PM is expected to transplant some faces with governance experience at the state-level and bring them to his Cabinet: Such as Sushil Modi, Sarbananda Sonowal, and Narayan Rane. Earlier Sonowal was not keen to be brought to the Centre, but had wanted a role in the Northeast similar to what was offered to Himanta Biswa Sarma when he was CM. Nevertheless, sources claim that Sonowal is now ‘reconciled’ to a stint at the Centre. Another name that was doing the rounds was that of Devandra Fadnavis, and if well-placed sources are to be believed, it seems he has fallen out of favour despite his proximity to Nagpur. Some names from the party headquarters who could be drafted for governance include Bhupendra Yadav, Anil Baluni and Jai Panda.
Will the JD(U) claim the civil aviation portfolio that was offered to it earlier but at the time Nitish Kumar has refused to join the Cabinet? Currently Hardeep Singh Puri is doing a fine job in managing the sector — especially during the lockdown when the government earned a lot of goodwill (and revenue too) via the Vande Bharat evacuation flights. While Puri, a consummate administrator, will be of credit in any other ministry that he is placed in, the question remains: Will the BJP let go of this ministry at a time when the Air India disinvestment is still to take place? Moreover, Nitish will also have a tough time deciding which of his men to reward with a Cabinet berth for he will have to choose between the rival claims of Rajya Sabha MP and party president R.C.P. Singh, and Lok Sabha MPs Lalan Singh and Santosh Kushwaha. Perhaps this is why Nitish Kumar is demanding two Cabinet berths and one MoS (ministry of state) with the BJP only willing to give one Cabinet and one MoS. Within the LJP too, Chirag Paswan has threatened legal action if his cousin Pashupati Paras is made a minister from the LJP quota.
The reshuffle will be the Prime Minister’s first and probably the last reshuffle before the 2024 elections, and so, one has to look for a larger message beyond the state polls. The health sector has been under the scanner, especially post the second Covid-19 wave. With rumours of a change of guard at the ministry, auditioning for the job has already begun. But the general consensus is that if the PM does go in for a change, he would look for an able administrator rather than a medical professional. Agriculture too needs firefighting, especially, with the farmers not letting up on their agitation, and the crucial state polls of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh due early next year, so the PM could go in for a change of face in this ministry. Moreover, the incumbent Narendra Singh Tomar, is a Lok Sabha MP from Morena and belongs to the same region as Scindia. Will the PM keep two ministers from the same region in his Cabinet? The Education Minister enjoys the blessings of the RSS but sources claim that the PM may be looking for a more progressive face to head this ministry.
The crucial question of course is: Will the PM shift any of the Big Four? That’s a big-ticket question, and while sources claim the PM is not too happy with one of the four ministers, no one knows as to whether he is considering a change or not. But in the end, political temperatures are at an all-time high on reshuffle eve.